An Online View of War in the Middle East Guests provide a tour of news from the Middle East on the Web, from YouTube to state-run broadcasts. Bloggers talk about posting from war zones, and experts offer tips on critical viewing.
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An Online View of War in the Middle East

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An Online View of War in the Middle East

An Online View of War in the Middle East

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Not so very long ago, war news arrived with the newspapers on our doorsteps in the morning. That changed, of course, with radio, newsreels, and later, network television. Vietnam became the living-room war, with film rushed to air just a couple of days after it was shot. In 1991, we watched Operation Desert Storm live on cable TV.

Now the news itself has become a wiki, and anybody with a broadband connection can contribute. Whether they're blogging from Beirut or hiding from rockets in Haifa, everybody from Joe Citizen to Hezbollah can get their message out. And it's often raw and unemotional, without the benefit of editors, fact checkers, or, in some cases, taste.

The war on the Web can bring us closer to the conflict, but it puts the onus on us to sort through the difference between a powerful glimpse at the true price of war and propaganda. You may also need a strong stomach.

This hour, the war on the Web, from YouTube to state-run newscasts. We'll talk to people posting from war zones and talk about how to critique what you read and watch on the Web.

Later in the hour, the science of bias - how partisans are wired - and a 30th anniversary edition of a classic of Southern cooking. But first, how are you watching this war? Where are you getting your information and why? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We begin with Jefferson Morley, who writes the World Opinion Roundup blog for the Washington Post, and he's joined us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JEFFERSON MORLEY (Washington Post): Thank you.

CONAN: Your job is to watch the online news media. What's different in the coverage as far as this conflict goes?

Mr. MORLEY: Different in different countries. Overseas, you see a - in the Arab countries, you see a much great emphasis on civilian casualties, for example. You see a wider range of debate in the Israeli press about the propriety or wisdom of what they are up to. You see different kinds of images in photographic imagery.

You talked about taste. For many of the Arab online - English-language Arab online papers, pictures of civilian casualties, of children who have been killed are routine. Those pictures would probably be seen as not in good taste by us. They're seen as very newsworthy by news organizations in the region. I mean, on almost every - there are many common points, but there are many divergences, too, in the coverage.

CONAN: In contrast with Iraq, where news coverage is restricted by the incredible danger of having to go out and report that news, the situation in southern Lebanon has been quite different.

Mr. MORLEY: Reporters have been able to travel to the conflictive zone, although they have not actually been able to travel to the scenes to observe the fighting.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. MORLEY: Those towns where the fighting is actually occurring between the Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli forces are, basically off limits, although people can go in afterwards. So there is a much greater degree of access. You also have people living in the conflict zones - or closer to the conflict zones, both in northern Israel - which is facing the Hezbollah rocket fire - and in southern Lebanon, where civilians in all areas have been targeted. So that's a little bit different than the Iraqi conflict.

Another big difference is this is a country and a region where a lot more people speak English. In Beirut, it's a very cosmopolitan capital. Lots of people are speaking English. So you have a bigger - or more accessible for an American audience - a bigger community of bloggers in Israel and in Lebanon. So you also have the amateur route to present the news, which is probably more developed than in Iraq.

CONAN: Yeah, I was going to say a lot of people also have digital cameras and computers.

Mr. MORLEY: Yeah. So you're getting a very wide-ranging news feed. And you can - if you want, you can be your own wartime news editor and pick and choose from these various sources to bring in, you know, different perspectives on the war.

CONAN: Now in terms of streaming media - that's things you can watch on your computer - what are you seeing these days?

Mr. MORLEY: I particularly like a show called Mosaic on LinkTV - which is a Web site which streams the highlights of the news from Middle Eastern news organizations, probably six or eight a day. So you can get a sense of what people in Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Iraq, how they are seeing this conflict in their evening news.

CONAN: What might be included in that?

Mr. MORLEY: One of the - last week, Al-Jazeera TV did a great human interest story about an elderly Christian woman and her best friend - an elderly Shiite woman - who were living in the suburbs of south Beirut where Hezbollah is headquartered and where the Israeli jets have been attacking widely. And this woman and her friend - who were probably both in their 70s - refused to leave, and they said we're just going to stay here.

And so the camera took you into this very darkened apartment with these very - two quiet ladies. And one of them calls her daughter in Canada, sounding amazingly cheerful and saying, oh, no, no, we're fine and we're not going anywhere. So it kind of brought you into the heart of the conflict in a way that is not unprecedented in the Western media. We do have these pieces. Anthony Shadid for The Post has been doing a marvelous job of bringing the Lebanese situation to life.

But American TV correspondents would not, I don't think, have been able to get that far into Shiite Beirut to bring that kind of personal story. So you get a dimension in these foreign news reports that you probably don't get from U.S.-based organizations.

CONAN: What are you watching and reading and why? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Matt, Matt calling us from Salt Lake City.

MATT (Caller): I'd just like to, I guess, kind of following up on just what you guys were just talking about. On a lot of American media, not NPR so much, but sometimes I've tended to notice that they'll report the casualty numbers as a whole. But on - when I check out Arab or European news sources on the Internet, I find that they usually point out how many - you know, 375 Lebanese dead, 40 Israeli.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

MATT: And I just thought that was kind of - maybe it's a good thing that we have access to all these other news sources, because it seems like the American media has been selling us short for a long time.

Mr. MORLEY: I think on the - in the coverage of civilian casualties, it's often not that the civilian casualties are not mentioned in the U.S. coverage, but the local news media is more likely to take a human interest angle on it, so they will go and find the family.

Again, this isn't black and white. It's not unprecedented in U.S.-based news organizations, but it is much more frequent that you see that kind of human interest reporting, and especially with the death of the 50-plus people in the town of Qana over the weekend. There is a much more - a kind of emotional outpouring about that than you see reflected.

For example, in the Arab online media today, virtually every site features a picture of a rescue worker carrying the body of a dead child: The Jordan Times, the Gulf News in Dubai, Al-Jazeera. That sort of imagery, today, is very common. Yes, you'll have some of those pictures in the U.S., but not as graphic.

CONAN: Matt, thank you. Let's go now to - oop, wrong button. There we go. Jerry, is this Jerry in Saint Louis?

JERRY (Caller): Yes, I'm here. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JERRY: Well, I just wanted to comment on the - on your guest, on his comment about it being considered in poor taste not to show, in this case, pictures of civilian casualties.

I think that's a form of censorship, really, and I think we find ourselves at war, and without people being able to see the horrors of war. And in fact, you know, to me that's the part that seems to be more in bad taste, that people aren't really - it's not available unless they seek out the images of what's really going on. And I think, unfortunately, that has affected our attitude towards conflict in this country.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, sanitized versions of real events?

Mr. MORLEY: I think we do get a little bit of a sanitized version of these events, and the more you see the foreign media, the more you understand that one person's outrage may be another person's necessity, and especially in the case of civilian casualties in Lebanon, and in this one incident. The toll is really astounding, and I don't know if censorship is the right word, but I have always felt that the U.S. media should run a wider range of images, to give a more accurate sense of what the battlefield really feels like.

CONAN: We've talked to newspaper editors about these kinds of issues in the past, and they say, look, it's a terrible problem if you're delivering something that's on the family table at breakfast. Even on TV or radio, you can say, hey, turn your eyes away if you're easily disturbed by these pictures. It's not too easy if you open your front page of your newspaper.

Mr. MORLEY: And I agree with that. As an online journalist, you work in a medium where people have to seek out these images, as opposed to ones that they receive on their doorstep. And I'm sympathetic with newspaper editors who feel that they have a, you know, a taste question there. But they also have a news obligation. I think the caller is right. I'm not sure I would use the word censorship, but it's an issue that, I think, we need to keep looking at.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks.

JERRY: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Shannon, Shannon calling us from Yankee Mill in California - Yankee Hill, excuse me.

SHANNON (Caller): No, that's fine, thanks. Thanks for taking my call. I actually kind of see it from a different point of view. I kind of - my information from all of the world comes from just the radio. I don't access the television or the Internet to see the images. (Unintelligible) a form of self-censorship. But there's so much information out there, it's just almost overwhelming to try to sort through fact and fiction and to develop a true, at least from my point of view, idea of what's going on in the world.

CONAN: And it can be overwhelming. How do you sort through it?

Mr. MORLEY: Well...

SHANNON: Basically, I try to get as many different points of view. I listen to, you know, liberal as well as conservative talk radio. I listen to NPR for the, you know, the top of the news hours, but then, you know, pretty religiously just sit by the radio and try to get my own point of view based on the facts as I can see them and glean, you know, what's important.

CONAN: Jeff Morley, you must spend hours everyday doing that.

Mr. MORLEY: Yeah. What I try to do is a couple of things. One is a track record for a news site or a blogger, for that matter, if this is somebody who has a track record of commenting and reporting accurately. I look for that. Established news organizations. There are several English language Web sites based in Lebanon that have been around for a long time, so I look to them.

On the Mosaic TV program that I talked about before, they take from all sources, both independent and state-controlled. And when you're serving as your own news editor and looking at a lot of things, the limitations of any one outlet, if you consider a lot of them, actually become an advantage, because you can understand what perspective those papers are coming from, what's the tradition of that news organization. And so that can fill you in. Not that you discount it, necessarily, but it becomes part of the - part of a piece of a larger puzzle.

CONAN: And if you're watching, for example, a Syrian state television newscast, you take that into account.

Mr. MORLEY: Right, right. And so you know. But I agree with the caller. It's a multiplicity of sources that I think can give you more confidence that you are well-informed.

CONAN: Shannon, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

We're talking about how you get your news on the Web, and we're taking your calls, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The Web has dramatically changed the way we can access and share news and information. During wartime it can bring the conflict closer. Our focus this hour is war on the Web. How are you watching this war? Where are you getting your information and why? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail is talk@npr.org.

At our Web site, we've collected a list of the blogs and video sites we're going to be talking about today. You can see them at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. Our guest is Jefferson Morley, host of the World Opinion Roundup at WashingtonPost.com.

And joining us now is J.D. Lasica, co-founder of the nonprofit Ourmedia.org, which was one of the pioneers in using technology to allow people to share video. He's also the author of the book Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation. He's with us by phone from San Francisco. Nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. J.D. LASICA (Ourmedia.org): How you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Have you seen some of these clips on YouTube that people are sending up?

Mr. LASICA: Yeah, I sure am.

CONAN: And?

Mr. LASICA: There's like 2,100 videos if you go to YouTube and just type in Lebanon. Yeah, you'll see an overwhelming number of videos.

CONAN: And what do you think about this proliferation of streaming media?

Mr. LASICA: Well, here's what's happened over the past few years. You know, war is one of those arenas where we've always left it up to the news professionals to filter it for us and like you and Jefferson were talking about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LASICA: I worked for the Sacramento Bee for 11 years, and there was always controversy about the public's tolerance for graphic images from war scenes. Do we show bodies of babies and children killed in a firefight? How much blood is too much when you're having your morning coffee?

But as you mentioned, you know, the Internet is this ultimate pull medium. It's not push like newspapers and TV. By and large, the stuff isn't shoved into your face. You have to go out and look for it. So today the Internet is like routing around these gatekeepers and letting anyone see the consequences of war firsthand and unfiltered. And what's happened is that two or threes years ago, it was all about seeing images from Iraq...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LASICA: ...that you couldn't see in the mainstream media. And today it's about going to sites like YouTube and Ourmedia.org to see video footage taken by amateurs on the ground, including neighbors and family members with camera phones and camcorders, and they're sort of becoming these new wartime correspondents. And the emotional wallop just reminds me of 9/11 in so many ways. It's raw and it's real and it's very deeply unsettling.

CONAN: And, well, I remember during a - the early stages of the Iraq War when reporters were embedded, they kept saying we're just looking through a soda straw. This is a lot of soda straws.

Mr. LASICA: It is. You're getting a - as we mentioned earlier, you know, you don't even have U.S. correspondents on the ground in Lebanon and in a lot of these areas, so a lot of the kind of stuff has been conjecture by the mainstream news media about what's really going on. So to have somebody actually go out there with a camcorder and to record the aftermath of a bombing in a village, you know, that's the kind of stuff that you wouldn't have access to just a few years ago.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORLEY: And I might also say that it's prompting an interesting dynamic. I noticed on a Israeli national news, a very - a right wing Israeli Web site - I think the Israeli military leaked aerial surveillance photos from what is purported to be Israeli jets taking pictures, allegedly, of Hezbollah fighters setting off rockets in the area of Qana where the massacre occurred over the weekend.

And so the proliferation of these independently available images forces a military establishment, usually very secretive, to respond with their own information. I think that it's a way that you see how this kind of digital democracy forces governments to respond in ways that they otherwise wouldn't.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. LASICA: That's right. And there's also, on the other hand, there's a new Israeli citizen journalism site called Scoop, and they have been getting dozens and dozens of videos and reports and photographs from people on the scene of the Hezbollah rockets that have been coming into northern Israel, so they're getting a lot of stuff from, you know, ambulances and in hospitals and people in shelters.

And so a lot of this stuff isn't really coming from southern Lebanon too much because it's hard to upload video. You know, they don't exactly - they're not exactly wired for broadband up there, right, so a lot of the stuff sort of has to trickle out and make its way onto the Web.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Maretta(ph), Maretta calling us from Huntersville, North Carolina.

MARETTA (Caller): Yeah. I just wanted to say I get a lot of my news and - from LinkTV. In fact, as the other gentleman was saying, Mosaic is also on that channel. And you know, I agree with him, you know, you just get a lot of stuff that we don't see on the regular news channels and cable channels, other sides, other points of view, you know, things that are going on right here in the U.S. that we know nothing about, you know. And I prefer to get my news from other sources because I don't - I feel like Americans have been propagandized for years, you know. We just - we just - we don't really get what other people in the world get.

Mr. MORLEY: I agree with that, and I think that you see it especially in this case. There's two things that stand out about the American coverage, I would say, of this conflict so far.

One is that we tend to see the conflict through Israeli eyes. Newsweek's first cover story on this cited four different Israeli military intelligence sources and only one from the Lebanese side. So one thing that that has done is it has produced, I think, the somewhat surprising continuation of hostilities. In the first week, the Israelis talked about this being over in a week or two, and that clearly has not happened.

A second thing is the U.S. coverage tends to be ahistoric. I think very few Americans know that Qana, the city that - where 50-plus civilians were killed over the weekend, was the site of another Israeli attack 10 years ago, in 1996, in which 100 civilians were killed, that the anniversary of that attack is a national commemoration in Lebanon and remains an important event in the life of that country. And it's going to - the psychological and political impact of these killings in Qana now are really doubled by that kind of historic background that very, very few Americans know of.

And incidentally, it connects with our larger understanding of this. Americans tend to see Hezbollah as a terrorist force, as they are defined by the United States media, and are known for their attacks on U.S. targets.

The last Hezbollah attack on U.S. targets was Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which happened two months after the first massacre at Qana in 1996 and was widely understood to be Hezbollah's response to the Israeli massacre at Qana.

Americans, not being immersed in the conflict, not being as close to it and not having a historic-minded media, really don't know about this kind of background which is shaping how the political system - situation is rapidly evolving in Lebanon.

CONAN: Maretta, thanks very much for the call.

MARETTA: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. J.D. Lasica, I wanted to ask you, when you're dealing with citizen journalists putting up these images at places like we mentioned, on YouTube and others, there are problems. There can be problems with some of these things, can't there?

Mr. LASICA: Oh, sure. There - well, there are a lot of potentials for difficulty, and one is certainly there's a potential for fabrication, and that kind of potential will always be there. Any group with any access to file footage from years of documenting wars and bombings can pull out an old clip and publish it and claim that it's something that it's not. So it's - it really is up to us as news consumers to use some judgment and skepticism and not take everything you see on the Internet at face value.

There is a lack of trust in the mainstream media, which is what's leading to the rise of citizens media, but if we substitute one kind of filter for another kind of filter, I think, you know, that presents problems as well.

Mr. MORLEY: And I think as people understand the importance of Web outlets like YouTube, I think we're going to see more efforts to dominate and propagandize over them, because they are an important news channel now.

CONAN: And we always get this compliant whenever we talk about YouTube, people don't understand what we're talking about. It's Y-O-U-T-U-B-E dot com. That's YouTube is. Let's get another caller in. Jeff. Jeff's calling from Connecticut.

JEFF (Caller): Yeah, I just wanted to comment on, you know, a little exploration I did a while back of my own on the Internet. When the war was beginning there was a lot going on there, with the kidnapping of - I think his name was David Burger(ph).

And I thought I was going to find a realistic view by doing my own research, and what I found was very different from what I thought I was going to find. And watching that video of the beheading really - I wasn't prepared at all to see something like that. And I almost thought that afterwards it's better to have a filtered view, you know?

I think that there needs to be an in between where people see the realities of the war, but what I saw went far beyond the realities. It was something horrible and it affected me for quite some time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORLEY: Yeah. I think that - I think that's a very good observation. We do need filters. Like J.D. said, the rise of the Internet has eliminated the gatekeeper function that elite media news organizations used to have. And I think that that can be a positive thing, but I also believe that there's no substitute for journalistic professionalism.

It may be disputed. It may be difficult to do. But it is necessary and important and a lot can be added to it. I try to urge people to both explore on their own, but also - since people don't have unlimited time - to find news organizations that they trust on the Web to sort through this stuff for them.

CONAN: J.D. Lasica, do you agree there should be filters? Should there be a limit on what gets posted?

Mr. LASICA: Well, no, there shouldn't be a limit, but I think people have to sort of decide on what their own filters are. What the caller said I think is true for a lot of people. Other people want it when it's all just come in. I know a lot of people who watched those beheadings and sort of decided that this was an experience that they never thought they would see anywhere but that they appreciated that fact that the Internet was there and that there wasn't anybody serving as a gatekeeper function.

We do, you know, we do need some sort of internal filter so that we can decide for ourselves what's good journalism, what's not. I think what's interesting is that we're getting more and more people, though, on the ground who are going out there and serving - even if they don't consider themselves journalists, they are serving as the eyes and ears and witnesses for the world.

And I think we're getting a much broader picture of what might be happening on the ground in a lot of these places rather than the kind of formulaic packages of the war that you get from the traditional news organizations. War is hell and we're really seeing that firsthand now.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: And J.D. Lasica, thank you very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time.

Mr. LASICA: Sure, great to be here.

CONAN: J.D. Lasica is co-founder of the non-profit Web site called OurMedia, a pioneer in using technology to allow average people to share video, a leading authority on citizens media and author of Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation.

We're talking about the war on the Web. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

One of the things about new online media is access videos posted on sites like YouTube allow you to contact the poster directly. We did that with several of the videos we found online from Lebanon and Israel. We heard back from Ohad Hershkovitz. He's a psychologist living outside Tel Aviv who posted the video of a rocket falling in Bat Galim, a neighborhood in Haifa. He's with us now on the phone from Israel. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. OHAD HERSHKOVITZ (Video Poster): Yes, hello, it's good to be here.

CONAN: Your video is fairly disturbing. It's the sound of a rocket falling on what looks like an apartment building and video of the subsequent damage. Now, you don't live in Haifa, how did you get this video?

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: Actually, up to a year ago - last year I was living in Haifa with my relatives who are still there, and this is an acquaintance of theirs who filmed it and forwarded it on to a couple of friends and family. And so my relatives forwarded it on to me.

CONAN: And so then you decided to post it. How come?

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: Well, I discovered YouTube a couple of months ago. And then lately, when the war started I'd been seeing some clips and there were a lot of clips out there showing the damage out in Lebanon of what Israel was doing. And it seemed a little bit unbalanced, and I wanted to throw a little bit of balance into the mix and show the other side what was going on in Israel. Because I noticed that the viewers were now seeing these uncensored, unfiltered raw footage of what was going on, not through the media but directly through these cameras and their reactions were very strong. And the reactions were, Oh my God, I can't believe what's going on in Lebanon. How can Israel do this?

And I think that if they're going to see that, then they really need to see both sides. And so I just wanted to add another clip that was showing some of the fear and some of the damage that was going on on the other side.

CONAN: And one of the things we do see is injured people being taken out of that building. Interestingly, if you click on your user name you see mostly what you've been posting on YouTube are Salsa videos.

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: Well, right. I opened my account a couple of weeks ago also to share clips of Salsa dance variations with others who are into the dancing. It wasn't originally to show videos like this from the war.

CONAN: Hmm. I wonder, you've seen these videos from southern Lebanon?

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: Yes.

CONAN: Do they sway your opinion one way or the other?

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: I try to keep an open mind, because there's no good guy, bad guy here. Hezbollah, obviously, is considered a terrorist group. But at home in Lebanon they're considered, you know, freedom fighters and they're considered responsible for Israel leaving southern Lebanon.

And so at home they're heroes and among Lebanese abroad internationally they're also considered hero - excuse me, heroes. On the other hand, Israel does have to defend itself and we are being attacked and we did have their soldiers kidnapped and they have to do their part.

Obviously, I'm very pro-Israel. I live here. I also understand the Lebanese side. But when other people are viewing what's going on, I think that this very much sways their opinion, when all of a sudden they see this footage for the first time, not through their TV news. But you know, it's like the beheading. They see it very raw. They see if for the first time, it's very fascinating but it's also very powerful emotionally.

And you can see this by the comments that people respond to underneath each video on YouTube, where they have very strong powerful reactions. And since they're hidden on the Internet, they don't really censor themselves, and then their comments sometimes will provoke others who feel opposite.

And then you have these diatribes going back and forth on the Internet where people are really lashing out against each other and really withdrawing into their own corners of how they feel, sometimes in reaction to the videos, sometimes in reaction to other comments.

CONAN: And - well, thank you very much for being with us. We thank you for your time.

Mr. HERSHKOVITZ: Absolutely.

CONAN: Ohad Hershkovitz is a psychologist who joined us from home outside of Tel Aviv in Israel. Let's see if we can squeeze one last call in. This is Grant. Grant calling us from San Antonio.

GRANT (Caller): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

GRANT: I've been with the Defense Intelligence Agency for almost 30 years and I've been in the Mideast for the last 20 years, and the news that we see absolutely is filtered, but it's also deceiving. I think the stories or the information that you get from a Web site like YouTube is much more honest. Even in very simple matters.

The military uses euphemisms and the press, both electronic and printed media, pick right up on them. And the biggest example is this insurgency. It's not an insurgency. True, there are combatants coming in from Syria and Iran, but the majority of these people blowing up the highway from Baghdad to the airport every day are what's left of the former Iraqi military that took off their uniforms, kept all the weapons and went home. And they've been blowing the heck out of us ever since.

And that's not an insurgency. The government would like you to think that it's something other than it is, and they're not reporting on the level...

CONAN: And Grant, I don't mean to cut you off, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you so much for the call. And we'd also like to thank Jefferson Morley, who hosts the World Opinion Roundup blog on WashingtonPost.com, for being with us. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. MORLEY: Thank you, Neal.

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